I arrive in Salekhard. It is green, cloudy, cool and raining. I’m in England! Well, not really, because I am also clearly in Russia. Although the city is obviously the same, the colors of nature have all changed.
Compare the same view (April)
There is green grass, wildflowers, and mud everywhere. It’s ~15’C = ~60’F.
I walk around the city. You wouldn’t know you were on the Arctic Circle.
But the buildings are all constructed on tall foundation pilings sunk into the permafrost. There’s a ‘cold space’ between the underneath floor of the building and the ground. Otherwise the ground would melt and the building would sink, because there’s no bedrock for the foundations, only (frozen) sandy mud. This, in turn, means that the lowest floor of each building is about 2 meters above the sidewalk. You have to go up a flight of stairs to get to anything. Also, because of the harsh winters, there are (few) large glass windows: and the staircases often have snow roofs over them. The net effect is that you have to choose to go into a business: up stairs, through a padded door.
As a resident, you know which shop or business you wish to visit.
As an outsider, I have no idea of the “life within”, it’s as mysterious as an Oriental bazaar. This is a city of fifty thousand people where everything happens upstairs behind closed doors.
There are some things at street level: for example, a local harvest of the very rare Siberian Watermelon …
And some local art, a mural on the back of an old brick wall that looked very rude at first, until I looked closer (enlarge the picture …)
But the most surprising thing of all, the greatest change, is the resurgence of religion. A couple of years ago, I visited Red Square in Moscow for the first time since the Fall of Communism … and was astonished to see a new building emblazoned with icons of the Russian Orthodox Church. Religion can be a powerful political force when representing national identity.
Here in Salekhard; in addition to the new church near the hotel, which I visited in April; they are constructing an absolutely huge new Cathedral. Despite being surrounded by a sea of mud and construction trucks
its towers and cupolas gleam blindingly in the high-latitude, low-angle sun, a vast presence on the skyline.
On the way back, I see a forlorn sign attached to the side of a nondescript building. It reads:
“Communist Party of the Russian Federation”.
This is all that remains of the monolithic organization that stretched barbed wire and minefields from the Baltic to the Black Sea and dominated my childhood future with the gray threat of nuclear war. Now, like the Berlin Wall, it’s gone. Read ‘Ozymandias’. The replacement gleaming domes are still controlled from the Kremlin: the mythology has changed, the atmosphere is more visceral. They built a tiny chapel with a gold cupola on Bely Island … not by mistake, but as a clear statement. I’ll be there soon.